Thursday, February 26, 2015

National Transportation Safety Board chief urges updates for crash investigations

WASHINGTON – The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that federal accident investigations must adapt to deal with modern technology and international participants.

Christopher Hart, the board's acting chairman, said investigators can learn from video and pictures that observers take at crash scenes.

International participation in what used to be strictly domestic investigations has also changed the rules about how reports are shared and released, Hart said.

"I've asked my staff to look at redesigning the investigation process from scratch," Hart told an Aero Club of Washington luncheon. "There are some exciting opportunities to improve."

Observers posted video of the Asiana Airlines flight 214 crash in San Francisco in July 2013 before the NTSB was officially notified. Pictures from other crashes gave investigators details about how a plane was maneuvering that aren't available from voice and data recorders aboard planes.

"That's an amazing resource that we've never had before," said Hart, who has a commercial pilot's license. "Now we can narrow down the focus much quicker and to the point, much more accurately."

Computerization of data from millions of flights can be analyzed to inform investigations, Hart said.

In another vein, Hart said investigations are increasingly international because planes or components are manufactured overseas.

"The days of a completely domestic accident are pretty much gone," Hart said. "It makes a huge difference."

The practical result is that while the NTSB keeps its accident reports confidential until they are finalized, rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations, allow participants to see reports before they are released publicly.

In the "miracle on the Hudson" accident of US Airways flight 1549 in January 2009, Airbus got to see the report early as French manufacturer of the plane, while US Airways didn't as a domestic airline.

In the Birmingham, Ala., crash of UPS Airlines flight 1354 in August 2013, Airbus again got to see the report before UPS.

And in the case of a Japan Airlines Boeing 787, whose lithium battery caught fire while parked in Boston in January 2013, the Japanese battery manufacturer got to see the accident report before Boeing.

"This is one that really got in my craw," Hart said. "This really started me along this path about how we could do this better."

The challenge is how to balance an independent investigation with peer review and comments from participants.

"It's very important that the public knows that what we come up with is an unbiased account of the event that is based on the facts and the evidence, and not who lobbies the best," Hart said. "That is our challenge."

Hart said staffers have just begun reviewing the issues and he set no deadline for changes. But he didn't think a regulatory change would be needed and he wasn't calling for changes in ICAO rules.

Hart, who served on the board from 1990 to 1993, rejoined in August 2009. He became acting chairman nearly a year ago and a Senate panel Thursday endorsed his becoming permanent chairman. The full Senate must still vote on confirmation to a two-year term as chairman.

"I don't really have that long to do this," Hart said. "I would like to see some significant movement on it and have it underway and operating while I'm still at the helm." 

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